The Desert Explorers are a refined and intelligent group. Interests vary and most of us are bookworms to some extent. This section contains book reviews as well as places to find and enjoy books related to the desert and our environment. Happy reading!
Highway 99, the History of California’s Main Street
Stephen H. Provost, Author
Published by Craven Street Books
Reviewed by Bob Jacoby
I have been obsessed with the federal highway system since I was a small child. Probably the two highways that fascinated me the most were Route 66 and Route 99. Every summer my family would take road trips on both roads to visit relatives and friends. A ton of stuff has been written on Route 66 but it is very exciting for me to find a book on US 99.
The author is Stephen H. Provost who has written several books on the history of various aspects of the federal highway system. This volume, which is very thorough, contains both the history of the roadway in California as well as turn by turn instructions to follow the original alignments, including some dirt, of Route 99.
In all my years of studying maps, I never realized that US 99 actually started in Calexico and headed north. My knowledge of 99 until I started to read this history was that for many years it was the way to traverse the Central Valley of California. However, the concept when the route was established in 1926 is that the route would be the spine of California going from the Mexican border to the Oregon border.
Provost has provided a very thorough overview of US 99 both historically and currently. The book is divided into two sections. The first section is called “The Story of Old 99.. The second section is called “A Tour of Old 99.” It really gets interesting when you can see the routing Alignments of the original road.
One of the interesting observations that Provost discusses at some length is that that US 99 evolved over the years into much more than just a transportation artery. Much like Route 66, the highway especially through the Central Valley, evolved a distinct culture complete with gateway arches, distinctive and non chain motels and hotels, deluxe fruit stands, and vest pocket amusement parks. Fortunately, many of these creations still exit along the road. The book has numerous pictures of most of this stuff, along with the unique history of each one.
Of course, you might guess, my favorite part of the book is Part II, “ A Tour of Old 99.” Provost obviously did an extensive amount of research to write this very thorough description of the current condition of the road from Mexico to Oregon. His turn by turn instructions appear to be complete and would be a great aid for any of us who choose to take the trip. Included in this section is an overview of the status and history of each town that the road went through. Thee writeups also include reference to any unusual roadside attractions, old or new, that are nearby. For an armchair traveler this can’t be beat!
I very much enjoyed reading and studying this book. My only criticism is that the author sometimes get mired down in minutiae. However, that being said, he certainly has written the definitive book on US 99.
It should be noted that the author has just finished a similar book on US 101. Also, some of his other books including America’s First Highways and Yesterday’s Highways are available from Amazon. They both provide a thorough review of the evolvement of roadways in the United States.
I have been informed that the author is working on a couple of other books on the history of highways. I plan to keep my eyes pealed as any work by Provost needs to be in my library. ~ Bob
The Big Bonanza” by C.B. Glasscock
Mignon lent me an old (1931) book on the Comstock titled “The Big Bonanza” by C. B. Glasscock. It’s about the huge silver strikes beginning in the 1860’s in Virginia City, Nevada. What impressed me the most when reading this book was the fact that getting supplies to Virginia City from San Francisco at that time was a truly daunting task. Roads over the Sierras were primitive at best.
The two main routes were the old Emigrant Road from Carson City to Placerville and a longer northern route through Downieville and Nevada City. I believe the Emigrant Road followed Johnson’s Cutoff, a trail blazed by John C. Johnson in 1848 and used by Snowshoe Thompson in 1856 to deliver mail. Stagecoaches followed the route in 1857 though it was not yet ready for speed or heavy trafﬁc. According to Glasscock, in the Spring of 1860 it still took four days by stage or muleback and six days on foot to travel between Placerville and Virginia City. After the Comstock rush began the road was repaired enough in the summer of 1860 to accomodate four-horse teams. Places such as Pete’s, Dirty Mike’s, Strawberry Hotel and Woodford’s offered whiskey, food and shelter along the route. Other names that reading and research revealed include Genoa, Van Sickles Station, Daggett Pass, Spooner Summit, Kyburz, Silverfork, Twin Bridges and Williams Station. The Pioneer Stage Company, which was later absorbed by Wells Fargo, had a very proﬁtable run between Carson City and Placerville. Enterprising men built toll roads to improve the route and mined the freighters. Rufus Walton built the Clear Creek Toll Road in 1860 and on current Google Earth it appears to be passable, though I don’t believe Rufus is still around to collect.
Highway 50 is the modern version of Johnson’s Cutoff, but there are signiﬁcant portions of the original route that meander away from Highway 50 that would make good future Desert Explorer trips. For example, the 1857 Hawley Grade down Echo Summit to Luther Pass is now a hiking trail. For a short while it was even the Pony Express Route but it was bypassed by Meyers Grade in 1860. And, there is still a small portion of Meyers Grade existing that we can explore. Doing more research, I came up with some information on Van Sickles Station. It was a freight station in the Carson Valley operated by Henry Van Sickle. In 1857 he constructed a two-story hotel with a bar and store. It was even a way station for the Pony Express riders when they began operation in 1860. Glasscock tells of an incident when a mercenary and killer named Sam Brown tried to kill Van Sickle but Henry escaped and later tracked down and dispatched Brown. Unfortunately, Van Sickles’ hotel fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1909. However, in 1944 the remaining buildings were restored and the ranch now frequently serves as a movie location. It is very near the start of the Old Kingsbury Road.
I diverged. Getting back to “The Big Bonanza” one reads that the riches being produced in Virginia City created a huge demand for better roads across the Sierras. According to Glasscock, Swan & Company acquired the franchise for 20 miles in the mountains and went to work, mostly with Chinese labor. They cut through rock on precipitous slopes and paved their toll road with macadam and slabs.Soon there was almost a continuous line of freighters and Swan & Company was able to clear $50,000 per year, a fortune at that time. This caught the attention of Huntington, Stanford, Crocker and Hopkins who were contemplating the creation of the Central Paciﬁc Railroad, which became a reality and arrived in Reno in June of 1868.
Anyway, routes across the Sierras were only a fraction of what Glasscock covered in his book about the Comstock. It is an interesting 1931 perspective, a good read, and there appears to be copies available on the internet. ~ Joeso
Postcards from Mecca
Here’s a recent arrival to the Stoll bookshelf: Postcards from Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves 1916-1936. Edited by Ann Japenga and Warner V. Graves III, published 2019 by the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, Tales of the Mojave Road Number 31, available from Amazon or from the MDHC website for $20.00 plus tax and shipping.
From the title and jacket blurb, you might think this book is about Susie Keef Smith, former postmistress of Mecca, California, who, with her cousin Lula Mae (Johnson) Graves, explored the desert around Mecca taking photographs in the 1920s and 1930s. And we do get some snips of information about Susie’s unhappy childhood and Lula Mae’s as well, just enough to keep the narrative moving through the years. Far more satisfying, however, are the photos themselves which eloquently speak of early
days among the palms, cholla and chuckwallas. Those of us DEers who’ve spent time at Corn Springs, for example, will happily recognize the vegetation and petroglyphs Susie photgraphed there. This book provides a unique glimpse of two young women in the 1930s enjoying true freedom while wandering the California desert alone, camping and exploring as the whim drove them, meeting prospectors and surveyors, peering into mine shafts and tunnels, catching horned toads, riding burros and driving a Model T. How many girls in this day of “liberation” would dare hope for such experiences!
But this is not the only entertaining story told in the book. Be sure to read Ron May’s tale in Chapter Four of how he rescued Susie’s photos from the dumpster behind the San Diego County Public Administrator’s offices in 1988. I have had the pleasure of knowing Ron as an archaeologist for over 30 years and I laughed long and hard at the mental image of this man, who at the time was quite large, jumping in and landing “amidst stacks of rotting food and smeared newspapers” to salvage photos, correspondence and even paintings from the “sticky mess.” Thank heaven he did it – otherwise we would have lost some bona fide desert treasures. And thank goodness Chris Ervin added the 1954 Norton Allen maps for orientation (though I wished they had been inserted closer to the front instead of buried on pg. 158). A book written by SEVEN authors can make for a rather disjointed read but
the photos shine throughout this classic and make the
journey worthwhile. ~ Anne Stoll
Women in the Sand
Review by Anne Stoll
We watched The Women in the Sand as promised this Thanksgiving after dinner, sipping champagne in our jammies. One of our number fell asleep but I watched the full 73 minutes and although saddened by the subject, I enjoyed it. Yeah, it’s a little long perhaps, some rough editing here and there and could use a stronger focus, but I came away thinking that this is a very important film. It documents a sad state of affairs and the truly bitter passing of an entire branch of California desert natives. Today only a very few still hang on by their toenails, and not for long. As the women themselves say, the others of their tribe who remain, who live in Bishop, are URBAN Indians. Through narration and historic photos, this film documents the modern history of the Timbisha Shoshone people of Death Valley. The sad tale is marked by years of perhaps innocent misunderstandings, classic bureaucratic bungling, and most appallingly, clear episodes of malicious persecution of the Timbisha by the agencies whose job was to help them. I’ll admit I suffer from empathy fatigue a lot these days, but in this case, the hard facts don’t overwhelm the story these brave women seem happy to tell and the narrative is not always depressing. Several scenes depict happiness and satisfaction, such as the pinyon harvest. Local scholars Ken Lengner and Emmet Harder add plenty of color and generally the cinematography is splendid, showing Death Valley at its beautiful best. We even make a short visit to “Poo-A-Bah” (Tecopa) and there’s a nod to Shoshone’s famous native author, the late George Ross. But we always return to the two central figures, Maddy and Pauline Esteves, the epitome of strong women in every sense and yet both are very fragile too. The final scenes end the film in a cloud of ambiguity – will they ever reconcile their differences? It would seem the desert “sands” we all stand in may be running out.
Zzyzx and the Last Shaman of the Desert Disillusion, Damage and Evangelism
Authored by C.E. Campbell
Book review by Anne Stoll
Anne wrote this article for our DE newsletter and also submitted it to the Mojave Road Report newsletter. They’re going to run it too, so don’t think you’re losing your grip if you see it there as well and have a little deja vú episode...
Zzyzx and the Last Shaman of the Desert. Disillusion, Damage and Evangelism.
Book review by Anne Stoll
Hot off the presses! Here’s a 199-page paperback about Curtis Howe Springer that was just released by author C. E. “Chuck” Campbell, copyright 2017, Green Street Publications, P.O. Box 953, Sunset Beach, CA 90742. I got my copy by sending a check for $26.00 to Dr. C. E. Campbell, 7031 Candlelight Circle, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. The price included shipping. It came promptly and in fine condition.
As to the contents, let me say up front that, however you feel about “Doc” Curtis Howe Springer and his spectacular rise and fall, this is one book you will want to add to your collection of desert titles. Although it is not an easy read, this work fills in several important and long-missing pieces of the history of Zzyzx Mineral Springs. Campbell writes
with the authority of a man who knows his history and was on the scene at the time.
Turns out, for some of the Zzyzx story anyway, I was there too, as no doubt were other Desert Explorers. Thus the subject matter is bound to resonate with this group. I earned an M.A. in 1984 from Cal. State Fullerton in archaeology as the result of graduate work I did there. I designed and created the displays on the history and prehistory of Soda Springs still on view in the main room (see Campbell’s book, page 36). After graduation, I stayed in touch with the folks at the Desert Studies Center – Rob Fulton and Alan Romspert were especially good friends – and in 1994, at the request of then Director of the Desert Studies Consortium, Gerry Sherba, I wrote the book Zzyzx: History of An Oasis – still in print, I think.
I did a lot of research for that book but I’ll be the first to admit there were parts of the Zzyzx story, particularly concerning Curtis Springer, that always eluded me. What was the truth about his past? How many wives and children did he really have? Did his son really die in a hunting accident at Zzyzx? Etc., etc. I always believed that Dennis Casebier was planning to write the definitive story of Curtis Springer, but as Campbell points out (p. 157), this publication has not materialized. And so I applaud C. E. Campbell for taking the job on and answering these and many other questions about Springer’s past. In addition, there are many pages of transcribed radio programs that bring “the voice” of Curtis Springer to the story, an essential element for anyone hoping to understand the man. But the crème-de-la-crème is the amazing Chapter Six, entitled “Undercover … and More.” Replete with period Kodak color photos, Campbell tells his own story of his undercover work in Los Angeles and his visit to Zzyzx in June, 1969 with his wife, young sons, and hidden camera. In my opinion Chapter Six is the highlight of the book.
But – sorry, I have to add this -- if this author were to ask for my advice, I would tell him to cease all sales immediately with instructions for buyers to wait for the second, revised edition. Everyone expects a few typos here and there, but if Masters
Shumway and Kemp actually did any editing of this book, they should resign their commissions. The errors, misspellings, omissions, grammatical problems and difficult overall organization of this work suggest a rush-to-publish that detracts seriously from the story. You cannot fairly criticize a man for writing an exposé that is “full of misspellings and grammatical errors” (p. 152) if you aren’t absolutely scrupulous in your own writing. It undermines your credibility. Some of Campbell’s misusages I found hilarious, such as, “Also discovered at the Soda Springs site were the ruminants of a portion of the old railroad bed…” (p.50) and his discussion of “… the medley of preparations that Curtis Springer hoisted upon unsuspecting listeners…” (p. 113).
Bloopers aside, this book does call forth some marvelous ghosts of the Mojave in a remarkable way. Does it answer the last, great question about Curtis Howe Springer – did he know what he was doing? Did Springer really understand that he was endangering some truly sick people with his bogus products? No, in my opinion, that question is not answered in this book and likely never will be. The Springer story is fascinating to me because of the gray area between good and evil it illuminates. But we can leave that conversation for the next edition. ~ Anne
The Silence and The Sun (Second Edition) by Joe de Kehoe 340pp
By Neal Johns, Chairman Emeritus, Desert Explorers
The Silence and The Sun covers the history of over 4,000 square miles of the East Mojave Desert with an emphasis on the people that lived there and their interactions with the rugged environment they lived in and changed. Joe has another winner; the First Edi- tion was outstanding for what it covered and now the Second Edition has added about 60 pages of mostly new material with a few minor corrections.
One of my first excursions into the East Mojave in the 1970’s was to drive over the Skeleton Pass Road. How could anyone resist a name like that? This was followed by many hundreds of miles of driving in the East Mojave and having no idea of the history around me until I began to read many of the desert history books. With the publication of this book, anyone like me will be saved from that fate. It is the best introduction to the history of an area I have seen.
The history of the Skeleton Pass Road is just one of the many things covered. The new material includes a great chapter on the Old Woman Meteorite and how it was taken from the two prospectors that found it, the Bagdad airfield, the “Cornfield Meet” – (Railroad slang for a collision) – between a train and a Army tank and other new added chapters.
Abandoned shacks, now falling down have a history and the broken dreams or successes of their long-gone owners are told here. Directions and GPS coordinates are given for explorers along with many old maps that show what once was. Above all, this is the story of the people that lived and worked in mines, on the railroad, and on or around Route 66. Imagine being a first grader and having to walk six and one half miles (one way!) to school, five days a week, or living in a tent while starting a gar- age on the new Route 66.
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in any phase of the desert. No dull history tome, this book comes alive with the people that made the desert their home and their accomplishments.
Kenneth Brown opens his book like so many desert writers before him, with a rapturous description of an unnamed canyon in Canyonlands, running through the colors of the rainbow and his repertoire of synonyms for "dry" and "rocky." Ho hum. But the book improves considerably from there, exploring the geology, biology, and history of the area in enough detail to be interesting but not so much as to be daunting. He divides the area into quarters, explores the geology and life forms of specific locales at each of the four points of the compass and then returns to the center, managing within this structure to unfold a chronological account of the area's human history as well.
Mr. Harry Crosby's beautiful book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California is available now from the Mojave River Valley Museum. This outstanding coffee-table-quality book had been out of print for several years before being revised and republished in 1997. Original editions sell for more than $100 per copy – when you can find them. This new revised edition contains new color plates and is truly a delight. The dustcover has this to say: "This full-color account, revised and expanded from the orignal edition, depicts the author's discovery and documentation of a world-class archaeological region in the remote central Baja California. The paintings were unveiled to the modern world in the 1960s by adventure writer Erle Stanley Gardner in conjunction with a comprehensive study by Dr. Clement Meighan of UCLA. These Great Murals, whose origins remain mysterious to this day, rank with those of southern France, northern Spain, northwest Africa, and outback Australia."
Our own Bill Mann, of Barstow Museum fame, has published his new book, Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Sites in the Mojave. In 8-1/2" x 11" format, this 90-page book contains 139 color photographs of the some of the Mojave Desert's most interesting and mysterious sites. The book includes detailed travel directions for each site. All sites are cross-referenced to the DeLorme Atlas & Gazeteer with GPS coordinates. Don't miss this wonderful book by "one of our own." A great buy for just $20.00 per copy.
Windshield Adventuring sounds like a good phrase to me! Too bad Barstow Mojave River Valley Museum members Russell and Kathlynn Spencer invented it. They even write books using that title. Tired of sitting around weekends when no one else is going out to see the sights? Have we got a deal for you! The Spencer’s have traveled extensively alone in a stock Cherokee and written guidebooks to the exciting places found so we can share with them. Sounds kind of touchy feely doesn't it? Guess I am getting old, and it shows in my writing. Living with Marian will do that to a man, Ha!